Twelve Russian diplomats at the United Nations in New York and 48 at the Russian Embassy in Washington face expulsion by the U.S. government for what senior administration officials described as covert intelligence operations that undermine U.S. national security.
The U.S. government also ordered the Russian Consulate in Seattle closed by April 2. Senior administration officials said they believe it has served as a key outpost in Russia’s intelligence operations, in part because of its proximity to a U.S. submarine base as well as Boeing manufacturing facilities.
Monday’s actions were in response to the March 4 nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England, which was blamed on Russia and critically injured a former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia. The show of solidarity was especially notable because Britain’s plan to leave the European Union has strained relations with many of the country’s neighbors.
The U.S. move came in coordination with 14 European nations, which almost simultaneously announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats on Monday in a broad attempt to disrupt the Kremlin’s intelligence network across Europe.
“We remain critical of the actions of the Russian government,” European Council President Donald Tusk said as he announced the actions by 14 European Union countries to expel Russian diplomats. “Additional measures, including further expulsions within the common E.U. framework, are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks.”
Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Canada all announced they would expel diplomats or intelligence agents, and at least two additional E.U. countries were expected to follow on Monday.
In all, at least 28 Russians were being expelled from E.U. nations, along with 13 from Ukraine and four from Canada. Each E.U. country kicked out four diplomats at most, suggesting the measures were intended more to send a symbolic message than as a fundamental attempt to wipe out Russia’s intelligence network across Europe.
Separately, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose country is not a member of the E.U., also said his country would kick out 13 Russian diplomats.
Taken together, the expulsions were an unusually wide-ranging expression of solidarity against Russia following the attack. The E.U. and the United States also coordinated economic sanctions against Russia after the Kremlin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, but subsequent actions have been more piecemeal.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the attack was “the latest in [Russia’s] ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world.”
“Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security,” Sanders said. “With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, “We take these actions to demonstrate our unbreakable solidarity with the United Kingdom, and to impose serious consequences on Russia for its continued violations of international norms.”
The German Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “For the first time since the end of World War II, a chemical weapon was used in the middle of Europe.”
The cascade of expulsions drew expressions of gratitude from Britain, which has sought a stiff response to the attack.
“Today’s extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever & will help defend our shared security,” British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter. “Russia cannot break international rules with impunity.”
Russia typically responds with tit-for-tat measures that expel an equal number of diplomats, sometimes after a delay of several days as the country’s policymakers consider countermeasures. For that reason, small nations that have only a handful of diplomats posted to Russia may hold back from more extensive expulsions.
Russian embassies around the world sometimes use their Twitter accounts to troll their host nations, and Monday was no exception. The Russian embassy in Washington took to Twitter to crowdsource its response: “US administration ordered the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle @GK_Seattle. What US Consulate General would you close in @Russia, if it was up to you to decide”? The tweet included a poll with three options: U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg.
The U.S. actions, which could prompt retaliation against U.S. diplomats in Russia, stand in contrast to President Trump’s efforts to foster a warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a phone call to Putin last week, Trump rejected the counsel of his national security advisers and congratulated Putin on his reelection victory.
Although Trump’s administration is taking action to punish Russia for the attack in Britain, Trump did not personally confront Putin on the attack during their phone call, administration officials have said.
“To the Russian government, we say, when you attack our friend you will face serious consequences,” said a senior Trump administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
“As we have continually stressed to Moscow, the door to dialogue is open,” the official added. But Russia must “cease its recklessly aggressive behavior.”
Analysts said the coordinated response from the United States and European nations further isolates Moscow despite Trump’s ongoing efforts to improve relations with Putin.
“These expulsions send a message that the West is not going to sweep the use of a nerve agent in a targeted assassination attempt under the rug or go back to business as usual,” said Andrew Weiss, a Russia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
U.S. officials said the Russian government has been notified about the expulsions and that the selected diplomats and intelligence officers have seven days to leave the United States.
The Russians keep about 100 intelligence officers in Washington, New York and San Francisco, former U.S. officials said. The diplomatic corps numbers in the thousands.
Though the symbolic impact is notable, if those expelled include intelligence officers, it puts the FBI, whose counterintelligence agents track Russian spies in the United States, at a disadvantage, said one former law enforcement official. The bureau often determines who the new Russian spy in town is by monitoring who the outgoing spy meets with.
The U.S. actions were orchestrated in close coordination with European allies. At a summit last week, leaders of the European Union’s 28 countries discussed measures they might take against Russia after Britain blamed the nerve agent attack in Salisbury on the Kremlin.
At that meeting, leaders said in a statement there was “no other plausible alternative” other than Russia being the culprit. Leaders who were tougher on Russia decided to move forward on their own with the expulsions.
Trump administration officials have said the United States agrees Russia is responsible for the attack in Britain.
Ahead of Monday’s joint announcements, the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the planned expulsion of Russian diplomats from European Union countries as “obsequiousness” toward Britain and accused London of forcing a rift in relations between Russia and European countries.
The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the expulsions, saying British allies were “blindly following the principle of Euro-Atlantic unity at the expense of common sense, the norms of civilized interstate dialogue and the principles of international law. It goes without saying that this unfriendly step of this group of countries will not pass unmarked, and we will react to it.”
Putin will personally approve retaliatory measures after recommendations are drawn up, a Kremlin spokesman said.
In the United States, the expulsion of 60 diplomats is believed to be the most sweeping since the Reagan administration ordered 55 diplomats out of the country in 1986.
In December 2016, the Obama administration expelled 35 suspected Russian “intelligence operatives” in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the U.S. presidential election.
Then last July, the Kremlin ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic staffby 755 employees in response to the passage of legislation in the U.S. Congress imposing new sanctions on Russia for its election interference.
In response to Moscow’s move, the Trump administration last August shut the Russian consulate in San Francisco and diplomatic annexes in New York and Washington.
Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer who focused on Russia in the George W. Bush administration, said the U.S. move contrasts markedly with Trump’s efforts to improve relations with Moscow.
“These expulsions and closure of the consulate reinforce the reality of a relationship that continues on a downward spiral,” Stent said. “The Kremlin will surely retaliate, leaving even fewer areas where the United States and Russia can work together. What a change from the president’s congratulatory call to Vladimir Putin last week.”
Michael Sulick, a former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and a former Moscow station chief, agreed: “They’ll certainly retaliate. The Russians live by strict reciprocity. It’s tit for tat all the time.”
The only time they did not do so, Sulick noted, was after the Obama administration’s move to expel 35 Russians. In that case, however, according to court records, it appears their restraint was prompted by calls between Trump’s then-incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak, has admitted that in December 2016, he urged Kislyak not to escalate an ongoing feud over sanctions, according to court records. The Washington Post reported Flynn had assured Kislyak the issue would be revisited once Trump took office.
Flynn is now cooperating with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as possible obstruction of justice by Trump.
The Trump administration’s move shows solidarity with Britain. “You have to send some kind of message,” Sulick said. “You can’t go around poisoning people.”
Putin likely will see this as a temporary setback, knowing that over time he can replace intelligence officers, Sulick said. If it were up to him, he said, he’d be taking more aggressive actions, such as revealing “financial information that would embarrass Putin on the world stage,” or other actions that would “really cut into him” economically.
“The Russians only understand one thing — when the boot is on their neck, and you keep pressing down,” Sulick said.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. John Hudson and Carol Morello in Washington, Matthew Bodner in Moscow and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.